Oscar Wilde once said hearts are made to be broken—but that poetic insight doesn’t help ease the pain of another universal truth: Breakups really, really suck.
The pain of calling it quits (or having it called for you) with someone whom you’ve invested time and emotions in—someone whom you’ve planned a future with, even if it’s just trying that new tapas restaurant next weekend—is enough to make even the Tin Man’s absent heart ache.
The worst part about having that intimacy ripped away is the question that lingers: What the hell am I supposed to do now? After a breakup you have three choices, says relationship and breakup expert Susan J. Elliott, author of Getting Back Out There: Successful Dating and Finding Real Love After the Big Breakup.
1. Spend time and energy focusing on your ex, trying to win them back (and possibly succeeding).
2. Go on as if nothing happened, perhaps falling into the first relationship that comes along.
3. Take your time and heal properly, look at what’s happened, learn from it, and find ways to build a new and healthy life.
Not surprisingly, all of our experts are in favor of the last option. (Wait, no option to cry yourself to sleep over rom coms while eating your feelings?)
Your Silver Lining Playbook
“Breakups are a catch-22: It sucks to have your heart broken, but at the same time, it’s quite possibly the best thing to ever happen to you,” says relationship coach Donna Barnes, author of Giving Up Junk-Food Relationships: Recipes for Healthy Choices.
It’ll make you a better human being, for one, as people who have been heartbroken tend to have more compassion, she says. And it’ll strengthen your friendships—nothing cures loneliness like midweek happy hours and girls’ nights in (or guys' night out). Plus, heartbreak survivors recognize how valuable a good relationship is—whether romantic or platonic—and will know what's worth fighting for in the future, Barnes adds.
The end of a relationship is also one of the best jump-starts for lackluster motivation. With extra time on your hands and the newfound need to create your own happiness, you can finally take that French cooking course you’ve always wanted to try or hit up kickboxing classes (and work out some aggression) three times a week.
And if you leverage the pain correctly, the brightest light at the end of the turmoil tunnel is this: Not only do you come out a stronger, healthier, better version of yourself, but also your future relationships are only looking up from here.
No Pain, No Gain
First, though, we have to understand why a little love loss hurts so damn much. For starters, don’t trivialize the trauma. One study found that when people hooked up to brain scans looked at photos of their ex, the parts of the brain associated with physical pain lit up—meaning you feel the ache of heartbreak much the same way you’d feel stubbing your toe or burning your hand.
Researchers also found that women experience more pain than men after a breakup. Why? Ladies are evolutionarily wired to invest in whomever they get involved with, since a one-night stand could lead to nine months of pregnancy, followed by an actual child. Whom they canoodle with potentially affects their future, so they become more attached to the one who makes it through the selection process. They’re therefore mourning both the loss of that person and the potential future, whether consciously or not. (The upside, researchers also mention, is that women heal faster than guys.)
Same goes for lesbian relationships, research suggests. In fact, breakups between women may be even more painful, as women experience a stronger effect of the "bonding hormone," oxytocin, than men. So a tight bond between two similarly wired women can only break with great distress.
Part of that post-breakup distress is actually your reaction to losing your identity.
But there's more. Yes, you miss that person—their bad jokes, their Sunday snuggles, their annoying-yet-endearing quirks. But part of that post-breakup distress is actually your reaction to losing your identity, research from Northwestern University says. Who am I without you? The influence of romantic breakup on the self-concept. Slotter EB, Gardner WL, Finkel EJ. Personality & social psychology bulletin, 2009, Dec.;36(2):1552-7433. When you are in a relationship, your sense of self becomes intertwined with your partner’s. And researchers found that after a breakup, people felt their selves were subjectively less clear and subjectively smaller compared to when they had been part of a pair.
But not all identity molding is bad. “Sometimes, being in a couple can create ‘self-expansion,’ when you take on new positive qualities due to being in the relationship, such as picking up a new hobby,” explains social psychologist Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D, associate professor of Psychology at Albright College in Pennsylvania. Being in a relationship can also cause “self-pruning,” or the elimination of your negative traits, like kicking a smoking habit. These two adjustments generally have a positive impact on your relationship and well-being, she adds.
The bad news comes when you get to self-contraction—losing the positive traits you once had—and self-adulteration—gaining negative traits.
So cut yourself a break post breakup: You're not only missing your partner, but you’re also partially mourning the loss of this reliable, enjoyable, and secure identity you’ve created.
Happiness Wasn’t Built in a Day
While it's beyond nerve-racking to suddenly be flying solo, what follows has the wonderfully optimistic title in psychology of “self-restructuring.” After all, most people have to hit rock bottom before they are motivated to change anything about themselves—if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?
A breakup can be a gift if you use it to become a better version of yourself.
“A breakup can be a gift if you use it to become a better version of yourself,” Barnes says. “The primary question people have after a breakup is, ‘Why doesn't he/she want me anymore?’” But instead of wallowing in that dark hole, restructure your outlook to make asking the question helpful, Barnes suggests: What didn’t you like about yourself in the relationship? What values did you compromise on (like ditching your friends for an impromptu date night or skipping the gym to snuggle longer)? What were your biggest fights about and how did you handle them (did you shut down and avoid confrontation?)?
What's more: Too often people play out their dependency needs with their partner (and their partner does the same with them), and this causes problems in the relationship, explains Deborah P. Hecker, Ph.D., psychotherapist and relationship expert, author of Who Am I Without My Partner?: Post-Divorce Healing and Rediscovering Your Self. "When one is flying solo, it is the perfect time to turn inward and to fill in the gaps." (And don't forgot the many other benefits of living la vida single too.)
Completing thoughts like “I get angry when...” “I feel strongest when...” “When I’m alone, I feel…” can help too, Hecker says. “This shouldn’t be a way to negatively judge yourself, but rather a way to see yourself objectively in order to grow.”
A study found that this kind of reflection helps you process what has happened and helps you heal by strengthening your sense of self as a singleton. Go it alone, grab a friend, or if you want an un-sugarcoated perspective, consider a professional therapist or counselor, who can give you deeper insights and potentially speed up healing time.
The next—and uber important—step is to substitute healthy behaviors for the old patterns, Hecker advises. If you always listened to your S.O.'s take on movies or politics, for example, discuss your own thoughts with a friend or family member.
“The best chance of finding a healthy and forever love is to have a wonderful life full of interests, hobbies, good friends, and social circles,” says Elliott. Translation: It's time to pick up your dusty yoga mat, find a volunteer group, or try any of these tips to start connecting with like-minded people.
Before you can have that perfect romance, you have to be the best version of yourself.
Creating a vibrant life for yourself—partner or no partner—should be priority #1 post breakup. “The need to bond is in our DNA and an integral part of the human condition, but it's equally true that a relationship can only be as good as the people in it,” Hecker explains. That means before you can have that perfect romance, you have to be the best version of yourself.
The growth that comes from heartbreak will also help your future relationships be more successful. “Most people don’t know what they don’t want in a relationship until they’ve experienced it, so breakups help them make better choices about the next relationship because the know to avoid the personality characteristics that didn’t work,” Barnes says.
Bonus: This growth will probably help you stop pining for your ex, since you aren’t looking for the same thing in a partner as you were before (or it can be the catalyst in knowing you really should get back together).
We know that it’s nearly impossible to trust there’s happiness ahead when you’re six tissue boxes deep into the heartache. But remember there's light at the end of the tunnel: Research finds that the sooner you can redefine your sense of self, the sooner you will get over a breakup.
All any of us wants is to be happy. For some, this requires the perfect person to be our other half, and for others, it means completing the equation yourself. Either way, to find the right person, you need to be the right person. And trust that in the long run, your efforts will lead to your own personal happy ending.